Here at WRFI, we are continually inspired by our alumni and we think you will be too! The alumni profiled below have volunteered to serve as contacts for anyone interested in hearing about WRFI from the perspective of a student who participated on a course. They would love to hear from you and we encourage you to reach out to them with questions ranging from, “Which backpack did you take on your course?” to “Why did you choose WRFI?”
I stood in the waning, golden sunlight of Montana, looking out at the fields that stretched towards Custer National Forest on the horizon. Out there, on the border of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, I felt a sense of peace, a sweeping openness, that has attracted hunters and ranchers to this place for hundreds of years and explains why this has been a culturally significant area for the Northern Cheyenne tribe for even longer. I imagined all the people, alive and long gone, whose lives are deeply entangled with this place. And it occurred to me, as I listened to a native Northern Cheyenne elder, Steve Brady, tell us the history of his people and the land here, that my life had become part of this place, too. Steve explained that we stood on 1.3 billion tons of coal, a natural aquifer that held water essential to the landscape and its people. This coal, however, along with the landscape above it, is the apple of the eyes of coal companies and railroads, which plan to mine it and ship it around the United States and to Asia. This would mean the ruination of the aquifer, the landscape, and the cultural sacredness of this place. With troubled thoughts, my eyes traveled out again, passing over the glorious but imperiled landscape; I will never forget this place or dismiss its problems as “just a pit somewhere out west.”
This was my classroom.
This autumn, I spent a semester away from traditional school, foregoing the comforts of Lawrence University for the wilder country of Montana. With a nonprofit organization called the Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI), accredited through the University of Montana-Missoula, I traveled around Montana with six other students, an intern, and two instructors, learning about its environmental, social, and economic atmosphere and problems.
We backpacked and kayaked through wilderness and met with speakers representing an incredibly wide array of perspectives, lifestyles, and occupations. The knowledge, understanding, and feeling of connection I gained from these experiences and meetings will stay with me forever, because I lived them and met people who truly embody the perspectives they stand for. Because of my WRFI experience, I feel well equipped to go into the world, converse with all types of people to tackle environmental—among other—issues, and be an active citizen of the beautiful thing we ultimately call home: the earth.
Each of us college students is encouraged to approach issues from multiple angles. From the analytic and academic perspective, we’ve nailed that. We’re awesome at taking the stance of “devil’s advocate” in the classroom and when we’re having intellectual conversations with friends on our way to lunch at the campus center…but do you ever have that nagging feeling that you’re not speaking from experience, from a deep understanding of the other side? I know I did, which is why, as an environmental studies and geology junkie, I decided to head west to learn about and experience environmental issues firsthand for two months. If only we could all have this kind of experience, we’d rekindle that deep connection to nature that we’re seeking but so often missing. We’d literally walk on the problems—the coal mines, the hydrofracking well sites, the oil refineries—that have forced us to grow up with the black rain cloud of climate change lingering overhead. But we’d also look out over the solutions to those problems: the wind farms, the sustainable ranches, a restored native prairie reserve, the green buildings, and perhaps most importantly, the wilderness. Late at night, we’d stare into the piney embers of our campfire in the wilderness of the mountains while reading and discussing an Aldo Leopold passage on understanding and appreciating the wood we burn.
Maybe that sounds like a fantasy education, a way to dodge rigorous academics. I thought so, too, just a few months ago. But now I’m convinced that the very moment we decide that we don’t have time in our academic career to leap out into the wilderness and find our environmental imaginations again is the moment that we need it most. The second the thought that “I’m a fill-in-the-blank major, so what could an experiential environmental course offer to me?” pops into our mind, we should recognize that the most fulfilling and meaningful experiences are the ones that we live. So find a way to get out into the environment and learn about it through the people who live there and the wisdom of the land. It is our responsibility—and indeed, our most precious opportunity—to read, to listen earnestly, to grapple, to understand, to imagine, to experience the rhythms of the land and its people. What better way could there be to learn about our place in the world and the earth—our ultimate subject—than to experience it intimately?
Go run in the woods.
Sincerely, Catie DeMets
Montana Afoot and Afloat alumnus
School: St. Lawrence University
Major: Chemistry and Geology
Hi! I’m Cory Couture: an alum of the Cycle the Rockies 2018 course. Currently, I am working on my undergrad degree at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and I am a Teacher’s Assistant for the Chemistry and Geology departments. My experience with the Wild Rockies Field Institute was one of the craziest and most exciting adventures of my life! Prior to the fall of 2017, I had never even heard of the Wild Rockies Field Institute. I was worried that I was going to have to spend another mundane summer working retail in my hometown. That fear ended when I received an email from one of my department professors about an upcoming visit by Katie Nelson, a WRFI employee. I was immediately hooked. All it took was a small, 15-minute visit for me to be inspired to take a leap into something different. I had no idea what I was getting into when I applied to WRFI. Even up to the day I arrived to Missoula, I did not know what to expect; though upon meeting my peers, my mind was put at ease knowing that everyone was in a similar position. From the first day on, I never had a bad day. My experience with WRFI was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I met amazing people, saw breathtaking sights and biked through one of the most monumental mountain ranges in the United States. Feel free to ask me anything about my experience and I hope you choose WRFI for your next adventure.
School: Oregon State Unviersity
Major: Natural Resources & Minor in Leadership & Music Performance
Hello! My name is Luke Taylor, WRFI alumni of the Colorado Plateau 2015 course. Currently I am working towards a degree in Natural Resources at Oregon State University with a minor in Leadership and a minor in Music Performance. My time with the Wild Rockies Field Institute is the best thing that I have done with my educational experience. I am a firm believer in hands on/experiential learning and place based learning. My preferred class size is small and interactive, allowing me to get to know both my instructors and my classmates. These are all things that I found in the WRFI classroom setting. Learning on the trail, in a beautiful area, is pretty fantastic. Being able to live out your learning is a cool experience, and one that I highly recommend. While on a WRFI field course there was never a time when I questioned the reason behind my coursework, or the purpose of what I was doing. At all times I was engaged, I was excited to interact with my classmates, and happy to be a part of the course. In my mind, this is what made the difference. The excitement to learn and the energy around me, in classmates and instructors, helped me get so much more out of my field course. If and when you choose to do a WRFI field course I have confidence that it will be a defining moment in your life. Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding WRFI! I would love to talk to you about anything.
School: Undergraduate: University of Wisconsin-Madison; Graduate School: Western State Colorado University
Major: Wildlife Ecology
While I’m originally from Maryland, I grew up in small-town southern Wisconsin. I graduated from University of Wisconsin – Madison with a major in wildlife ecology in 2018, and now I’m a graduate student at Western State Colorado University’s Master of Environmental Management program with a focus in integrative and public land management. In the summer of 2015, I took the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Environmental Ethics course in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. I loved it so much, I returned to Montana in the summer of 2016 for their Restoration Ecology course in Yellowstone! Since then, my WRFI experiences have heavily influenced my life and given me enough training to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, The Prairie Enthusiasts, and WRFI itself! When I’m not studying, I strength train, go birding, hike, read books, and watch Netflix. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you need help deciding which class to take, how to pack breakfast for three weeks in the field, or anything else you want to know!
School: Montana State University
Major: Environmental studies & Photography Dual major
I am an environmental studies and photography dual major studying at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT. During the fall of 2016, I joined WRFI for the Montana Afoot and Afloat course, which introduced me to a variety of Montana’s landscapes and people. Currently, I am finishing up my degrees and working part time as a photojournalist for an online publication called, Prairie Populist. It’s basically my dream job. I spend my summers living in my truck and traveling on assignments for this publication to various and distant regions of Montana to tell stories about the people who call Montana home. Honestly, my life has become a solo extension of my adventures with WRFI.
My time with the Wild Rockies Field Institution was instrumental to my “coming of adult-hood” if you will. I learned new things about my personality I didn’t know dwelled inside of me. I learned the importance of understanding the world from someone else’s point of view, to shelter bias and judgement, and to open my mind and heart to a world I at first didn’t understand. With this I learned how to communicate effectively to those who saw the world through a different lens. These skills have a huge part to play in my successes as a photojournalist.
The Montana Afoot and Afloat course will guide you through a healthy portion of Montana’s landscapes, cultures, people, and history. Place-based learning is what WRFI is all about. To have the ability to study the ecology of the Rockies, the geology of the plains, or the history of native peoples while being physically a part of those environments is truly an effective way to learn. The connections and friendships you build along this journey will stick with you for a lifetime. A semester afoot and afloat with WRFI is worth every second away from your artificially lit classroom, and every step into the wilds of Montana.
Contact me to learn more!
School: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Major: Journalism and Environmental Studies
My name is Mason Muerhoff, and I am an alum of the “Restoration Ecology in Greater Yellowstone”course. I double-majored in Journalism and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I found out about WRFI through our Environmental Studies program, and decided to take the course in the summer of ’17, after learning about all of the amazing experiences that a WRFI field study course offers. I met lots of curious and interesting folks while driving and backpacking about southern Montana and northern Wyoming, and learned about issues like Bison range management, invasive grasses and the foundational principles ecological restoration, all while enjoying the beautiful landscapes of the Montana Rockies. Ask me how the course went, what I needed before attended, or any other questions you might have!
School: University of Montana
Major: Natural Resources Science and Management, minor in Wilderness Studies
WRFI for me was the culmination of everything I wished my education could be, and one of the best experiences of my life. The course teaches you so much–more than you could ever expect. Conservation issues move out of the abstract and into the forefront of your life, teaching in a way more potent and long-lasting than any other I’ve come across. For me, some of the greatest lessons were outside of the books, or maybe between the lines. The unexpected joys of living in community, the thrills of peaking a mountain weeks ago you would’ve thought impassable, the contentment that comes from being connected to place, the lightness of living with little. Perhaps most importantly, the world-opening realization of all that is waiting for you if you’re willing to step away from your day-to-day for awhile, and into the unknown. I’ve recently returned from New Zealand to Missoula, where I work as a freelance farmer and hangout in shady spots with my cat, Kabooki.